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The Language of Loopholes

July 10, 2011

With budget talks in full swing, we’re once again treated to a recurring spectacle in American political theater. As we expect from, like, every other budget talk ever, Republicans are all about cutting spending and Democrats are concerned about maintaining existing government programs. And we also get to watch in suspense as both parties seem close to an agreement that eventually falls through. Case in point: apparently, in a secret meeting last weekend with Rep. John Boehner (which in my imagination started something like this), President Obama offered to put a bunch of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security on the chopping block in return for tax overhaul. Then like two days later coy Boehner decided that he didn’t much like that idea.

Like I said, all this is typical budget talk behavior, but it got me thinking about the idea of tax reform, and more specifically it’s buzzword-ified counterpart, “tax loophole.” It seems like an issue where progressives and conservatives can find common ground; as majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor is quoted as saying in that first Times article I linked to above, “if the president wants to talk loopholes, we’ll be glad to talk loopholes.” And I don’t doubt him one bit. Particularly because the word “loophole” implies that someone can get away with something they shouldn’t. “Closing tax loopholes” is evocative in a way that a similar phrase that means basically the same thing, something like “making stricter tax laws,” isn’t. But depending on who you’re talking to, that “something” that “loopholes” allow people to get away with can evoke sentiments that gel nicely with either conservative or progressive ideology.

You see, if there’s one thing conservatives really get angry about, it’s individuals exploiting “the system.” You need look no further than conservative arguments for tort and welfare reform, and against amnesty for illegal aliens, for further examples of this. Thinking in terms of “tax loopholes” can make us think about individuals taking advantage of the government, which is a rhetorical figure used in conservative arguments against all sorts of other things.

But like I said, it’s not just conservatives who benefit from the “loophole” analogy. It can evoke liberal ideology just as well, and for sort of similar reasons. Traditional progressive support for programs like government-sponsored healthcare and opposition to privatization of social programs imply that progressives think that taxes are spent on important things. If that’s the case, then “loopholes” allow people with the means to help others by paying into these programs to avoid doing so.

In both cases, the analogy taps in to fears about the relationship between the individual and the government. Looking at conservative stances on other issues, like I said, it seems fair to say that it’s a big concern of theirs that individuals might end up exploiting the government and getting something they don’t deserve. Likewise, it seems fair to say that liberals are worried about individuals not doing their fair share to help others.

The words and phrases that people of all political stripes widely use to talk about things often tie in with their ideologies in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but what’s interesting about the “tax loophole” phrase is that it can evoke widely different ideological sentiments. Which is probably why we hear it a lot whenever budget issues come up. But what do you, our oft-silent readers think? The magic of the internet allows us to track how many of you look at our site, so we know you’re out there. So speak up and tell me, does the phrase’s broad appeal ultimately make it empty, or is it an example of how carefully chosen language can unite people of different political persuasions on an issue? Feel free to discuss this, or anything else, amongst yourselves in the comments section. Really, go ahead. You click the “comment” link, and then you can Say Anything. See what I did there?

If you want to know more:

  • In “The Second Persona,” Edwin Black comments on how whole aspects of ideologies can be implied in simple phrases that gain currency among a group. What’s interesting here is that, as I said, you can see both progressive and conservative ideologies implied in the phrase “tax loophole.”
  • Then again, in “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture,” Michael McGee argues that contemporary public rhetoric is such that we bring our own ideologies to bear on what we’re exposed to, filling in the blanks in the “fragments” we are presented with.
  • Apparently, setting that whole Lloyd Dobler-with-boombox scene to different music is, like, a thing. Most of them are really dumb, but this one is pretty excellent. It’s a tad NSFW.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2011 6:59 pm

    Personally it is rather difficult to address a comment for this log. I am the average reader. As a regular reader I clearly find the world of your rhetorical observations interesting, but as I am average, I don’t have much to add.

    These pieces are certainly informative and draw attention in greater detail the nuances of the news, However, they cover the scope of their topic in enough detail that there isn’t much to add, nor are there errors (or even debatable propositions) to bring question to. Maybe that is something to consider, this particular post begged for comments, you should pose more questions to us like this.

    Hell, but I certainly don’t want you folks to get bored writing for the quiet masses, I enjoy this and I want you to as well.

    So as for the topic, taxes, previously I recall the Tea Party clamoring that even this tax reform would increase revenue and therefore fall in the same lot as a tax increase. I wonder if they will still claim that.
    The talk of closing loopholes is incredibly vague, as to the number, genera and even criterion for what a loophole is. Now thinking about it more, this sort of loophole seems only to favor the richer sort, those that have a significant interest tax planning to take advantage of this sort of thing. The typical conservative idea of theft from the people (i.e.their wallets) are the illegal aliens in emergency rooms; or the welfare white trash with seven kids, a can of beer and no job plans whatsoever. No fiscal conservative wants to close tax loopholes, but they don’t want to look like Scrooges themselves.
    This phrase is only palatable as long as it is vaguely defined, but in execution the narrative will change back to the original argument, but everyone will feel better about themselves for agreeing to close loopholes, just like the various wars on generic bad things.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      July 12, 2011 2:56 pm

      First off, let me thank you for your readership and your comment! It’s good to know you’re out there, even when you’re being quiet. We’ve discussed asking more direct questions like this in staff meetings, and it’s good to know that you think that’s a good idea.

      You raise some interesting and important points about the loophole issue–I think you’re absolutely right in that the more we define what exactly the problem with “loopholes” is, we’d lose adherence from audience members that reject that definition. It’s appeal is certainly in its ambiguity. What’s interesting is how this contrasts with a lot of other ideologically loaded language–the original example from Black’s “The Second Persona,” which really influenced my argument here, is “the cancer of communism,” a phrase that has more overtly one-sided ideological overtones. So I think “tax loophole” is a neat example in that it’s specific enough to be negatively evaluative, but still ambiguous enough to be something both sides of the proverbial aisle can get behind.


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